The Evolution of American Comedy

Bob Hope at a 1967 USO show to entertain American troops overseas during the Vietnam conflict. (Photo: Newsmakers)

By tracking the evolution of American humor, Kliph Nesteroff proves that comedians can do more than make us laugh. They can show us who we really are.

by Ross Ufberg Pacific Standard The book review is currently available to subscribers and will go live on Tuesday, January 12. From here, an excerpt:

Last June, President Barack Obama walked into the garage-turned-recording-studio of comedian and podcast host Marc Maron for an hour-long interview. The very fact that the two had a conversation, which focused on domestic politics (the things that annoy Obama) and domestic feuds (the things that annoy Michelle), gave credence to one of the central theses of the recent illuminating book by Kliph Nesteroff, The comedians. The medium of comedy both reflects and stimulates the increasingly visible battle for Americans’ political and cultural allegiances. Consider the President’s previous appearance on comedian Zach Galifianakis’ web series between two ferns, during which Galifianakis asked, “I need to know: how does it feel to be the last black president?” Tolerating this type of awkward irreverence is a radical departure from even 50 years ago, when, as Nesteroff notes, a club owner in San Francisco was criticized after giving the stage to comedian Mort Sahl, whose routine included jabs at then-President John F. Kennedy. (Joseph Kennedy called on his son, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to get the IRS to shut down the club.)

Taking us back to the early days of American comedy, with its roots in marquee entertainment, Nesteroff sheds light on the incongruities of the social mores of that era: Benjamin Franklin Keith, one of the future directors of the Keith/Albee partnership who controlled many of America’s vaudeville theaters, got its start in the 1880s “selling tickets to shows of ‘black babies born prematurely.’ His wife was a devout Catholic who opposed anything wrong, and so the comedians and actors who traveled the country to perform the circuit had to keep it clean. “If a representative of the [management] challenged the content of an act, a request to cut material was sent backstage in a blue envelope.

Local character codes allowed the police to arrest people deemed to be acting obscenely or lewdly. Of course, lecherous and obscene – then, just as much as now – are terms of interpretation. Usually the courts have sided with the comics, but not always; too many artists have spent nights in jail awaiting their vindication and many more have been intimidated by self-censorship. Yet, as society grew pretentious in some ways, in others things had not budged. Keith no longer hawked tickets to see dead black babies, but America’s original sin of racism remained. Many comics, including Bob Hope, practiced blackface and often used racial and ethnic stereotypes in their acts.


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